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  • Reverend James Squire

Death As A Moral Compass

Updated: Aug 6, 2022




The old adage holds true in part that the only two absolutes in life are death and taxes. People have found various loopholes and ways of avoiding taxes so that leaves us with the one universal truth. We are all going to die. There are few things in life that are more sacred than being with someone as they are dying. The superficialities of the quest to have it all are removed as the imposters that they are. What is left in that moment is the reality that death will eventually be part of our life.


Death can be a compass that shapes our decisions and manner of living. In essence, the way that we view death is the way that we will live life. The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker is referred to as the most important book that never gets read because it is so complex. It describes the many ways we all go through life creating a false narrative that immortality is part of the human condition when it certainly is not. It was the book du jour when I was living in Swarthmore and reflected this idea that our view of death determines how we live our life.


The peoples of the book, Christians, Jews, and Muslims, have varied views of death and the afterlife and guidelines for living. In Christianity, the resurrection is the central doctrine that is a belief that we will live on in the spirit with an ongoing connection with Jesus and our loved ones. The guidelines for living are found in the Old and New Testaments. Judaism has a varied view where people live on through their good deeds done on earth as well as a more traditional view where people live on as spirit connected to God. Their guideline for life are the Old Testament and the Talmud. Muslims must live on earth following the five pillars of Islam: Faith in God, Prayer, Honoring Ramadan, Alms giving to the poor, and when possible, doing a Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca. Their guidelines are found in the Koran. This is needed to live on in an afterlife.


Since ethics is about how one should live life, we discussed in class two questions, “If you knew that you had one day to live, how would you choose to live it?" The second question is, “If you were given unlimited funds and knew that you had a day to live, how would you live it?” It was a real privilege to listen to my students' answers and their exchanges with classmates. Usually, their answers to the two questions evolve into being the same.


I believe that how we view death is how we live life. That is the central theme of The Denial of Death. I have seen this clearly in the life of one of my most courageous former students, Alex Bilotti, whose chapel address at EA continues to influence the spiritual attitude of me and others. She battled Ewing Sarcoma from the time she was a young student until it finally took her life when she was a student at Penn. She used the Latin phrase, Momento Mori which was a phrase that the Roman Emperor heard from servants who would follow him saying this to remind him that he would not live forever and should live accordingly. I have attached the video of Alex’s address and the text of her address. She said a phrase that I have used many times. As a result of having cancer and living closer to death, she said that she was able “to live from a deeper spot.” Her address is not so much about dying as it is about how to live knowing that reality.


Text of Alex Bilotti Chapel Address
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